Does NATO Need a Crisis?

Can the alliance transform itself into an international police force or should it await the next chance to be useful?

At his Foreign Policy blog, The Multilateralist, David Bosco wonders whether NATO needs a new crisis to find purpose in this twenty-first century.

While the alliance is officially rethinking its future, the most recent test case — Afghanistan — is anything but encouraging. Many of the allies are increasingly weary about the ISAF mission there with even the United States appearing to prepare for defeat.

The Netherlands — long one of the alliance’s stalwarts — has pulled out. Canada, another star performer, is getting set to pack up as well. From other quarters, and particularly Eastern Europe, there is grumbling that the costs of the operation are sapping members’ ability to modernize their militaries.

Indeed, throughout Europe armed forces are bracing for spending cuts. Particularly the British, currently the second largest troop contributor to ISAF, will have to make huge sacrifices, including whole brigades, armored formations, artillery units, maritime surveillance aircraft, the Royal Air Force’s fleet of Tornado strike aircraft, amphibious landing ships and one of the Navy’s four Trident submarines.

Without much coordination taking place yet on the European level, such savings will put an even greater strain on the United States and its already massive defense budget. But with Washington also forced to cut spending across the board, complaints of the Europeans free riding on American power will likely intensify.

NATO, in the process, risk being sidelined and reduced to “a strategic backstop that exists just in case,” as Bosco puts it. There are alternatives.

First is becoming something of a global police force. “NATO could seek to regularize the role it has played in Afghanistan as a global stabilization force.” The Americans may like the sound of that but as for the other member states, Afghanistan has been “a traumatic experience,” according to Bosco, “and there’s not much appetite for seeking out new dragons to slay.”

Another option is to “embrace the bear.” NATO has already swallowed much of the former Warsaw Pact, so why not Russia itself? It’s a nifty idea but with all the Cold War nostalgia sweeping through the corridors of the Kremlin, one that’s unlikely to become a reality any time soon.

A third possibility is to transform into “an alliance of democracies” with countries as Australia, Japan and South Africa joining the club and together becoming “an active force for democratization around the world.” Such notion entirely ignores the fact that the group of democracies around the world has grown exponentially in recent years; that to pretend otherwise and have NATO be their representative should be pretty offensive to countries as Brazil, Colombia, India, Turkey and similar states currently maintaining close ties with the West but then suddenly shown the door because they’re not part of the ol’ boy network.

“Probably the most likely course,” Brosco admits, “is for the alliance to lick its wounds, weather the current round of defense cuts and consolidation, and wait for another opportunity to be useful.” What’s so bad about being “just in case” anyway? Something will turn up eventually.